August 19, 2003
SCENIC ROAD DESIGNATIONS
By: Paul Frisman, Associate Analyst
You asked how a local or state road can be designated a scenic road.
Different laws govern the designation of scenic roads, depending on whether the road is a state highway or local road. Generally, the Department of Transportation (DOT) commissioner, in consultation with the commissioners of the departments of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Economic and Community Development (DECD), can designate a state highway or portion of it as a scenic road; municipalities can designate local roads as scenic roads.
STATE ROAD DESIGNATION
The DOT commissioner, in consultation with the DEP and DECD commissioners, may designate a state road, or portion thereof, as a scenic road (CGS § 13b-31c). A Scenic Roads Advisory Committee, appointed by the DOT commissioner, evaluates the proposed scenic road and makes recommendations to the commissioner.
To be designated a scenic road, the state highway, or portion of it, must (1) pass through agricultural land, or abut land on which stands an historic building or structure listed on either the federal or state register of historic places, or (2) afford a view of marshes, shoreline, forests with mature trees, or notable geologic or other natural features that, singly or in combination, distinguish the highway (CGS § 13b-31b and Conn. Agencies Regs. § 13b-31c-5). In addition, the regulations require that the highway (1) be at least one mile long, and (2) have development compatible with its surroundings that does not detract from the scenic, natural character and visual quality of the highway area. According to Scenic Road Advisory Committee chairwoman Colleen A. Kissane, the latter requirement refers both to existing development abutting the highway, and the uses for which the area is zoned.
Any agency, town, group or individual may ask the DOT commissioner to designate a state highway or portion of it as a scenic road. The applicant must include a report providing pertinent information on the proposed designated highway, including the:
1. highway segments or areas to be included,
2. description of natural and cultural resources and features of scenic interest;
3. existing use of abutting land;
4. photographs of outstanding and representative scenery, and
5. properties abutting the highway listed on the national or state register of historic places (Conn. Agencies Regs. § 13b-31c-3).
According to DOT, the applicant may contact the state historical commission for help in identifying properties that have been historically designated along a proposed scenic highway.
Appointment and Role of Scenic Road Advisory Committee
The transportation commission must appoint a Scenic Road Advisory Committee, which must include representatives of the DEP, DOT and DECD (Conn. Agencies Regs. § 13b-31c-2).
The committee must meet quarterly, unless there is no business, or as necessary, to:
1. develop a way to evaluate requests for scenic road designation;
2. review and evaluate such requests;
3. recommend appropriate designations to the DOT commissioner;
4. evaluate DOT proposals that may have an impact on the characteristics that qualify the road as scenic;
5. recommend alternative actions to avoid, mitigate, or minimize adverse effects of improvement or alteration on scenic roads without compromising travelers’ safety; and
6. recommend any changes in designation in response to development, zone changes, or other local actions (Conn. Agencies Regs § 13b-31c-2).
When reviewing a request for scenic road designation the committee must evaluate the extent and quality of the proposed designated road’s historic, scenic, natural or cultural resources. It may review any reports, letters, articles or other documents it believes necessary to help it make a recommendation. It may also request more information from the applicant (Conn. Agencies Regs § 13b-31c-3(b) and (c)).
Designation process deadlines. The advisory committee, must, within 90 days of its meeting, forward its recommendation to the commissioner for approval or denial. The recommendation must include the specific feature or characteristics that would qualify the highway as scenic, or explain why the committee believes a scenic road designation is inappropriate (Conn. Agencies Regs § 13b-31c-3(d)).
The DOT commissioner must approve or deny the request within 45 days of reviewing the committee recommendation, and must send written notice of his decision, and the basis for it, to the applicant within 15 days of his determination (Conn. Agencies Regs. § 13b-31c-3(e) and (f)).
Reconsideration. State highways that are not recommended for designation or are recommended for deletion as a scenic road will not receive further consideration unless additional information is presented to the commissioner. Such information is limited to the specific item or items that resulted in the denial or deletion. The advisory committee must forward its recommendation for a final decision by the commissioner within 60 days of its meeting to reconsider. The commissioner has 45 days from receiving the recommendation to render his final decision, and 15 days from the date of his decision to notify the applicant in writing (Conn. Agencies Regs. § 13b-31c-4).
Improvement and Alteration of Scenic Roads. Any alteration of a scenic road must maintain its character, if practical (CGS § 13b-31c). Before altering or improving a scenic road, the commissioner must publish notice of his plans in a newspaper of general circulation in the town where the road is located. Interested parties may submit written comments on the plans following such notification (CGS § 13b-31d).
CGS § 13b-31e requires the DOT commissioner, after consulting with the DEP and DECD commissioners, to adopt regulations setting special standards for maintaining and improving scenic roads that take into account the protection of historic and natural features of the roads. Such regulations must include provisions for widening the right-of-way or traveled portion of the highway, and for guardrails, paving, grade changes, and the straightening and removal of stone walls and mature trees. We have attached a copy of these regulations (Conn. Agencies Regs. § 13b-31e-1 et seq. )
LOCAL ROAD DESIGNATION
By law, (CGS § 7-149a) any town, city or borough may, by ordinance, designate highways or portions of highways (but not state highways) as scenic roads, and may regulate future alterations or improvements on the roads, including widening of the right-of-way or the travel portion of the road; paving; changes in grade; straightening, and removal of stone walls and mature trees.
A municipality may, by ordinance, authorize a planning commission or planning and zoning commission to designate scenic roads. The ordinance must prescribe the standards and procedures the town uses to designate roads as scenic. However, state law requires that such locally-designated scenic roads (1) be free of intensive commercial development and intensive vehicle traffic, and (2) meet at least one of the following six criteria:
(a) be unpaved;
(b) be bordered by mature trees or stone walls;
(c) have a travel portion no more than 20 feet wide;
(d) offer scenic views;
(e) blend in naturally with surrounding terrain; or
(f) parallel or cross brooks, streams, lakes or ponds (CGS § 7-149a(b)).
The municipality must maintain the designated portion in good repair and passable condition. The law specifically allows people who own or occupy land abutting a scenic road to maintain and repair their land, as long as it is not within the scenic road’s right-of-way (CGS § 7-149a(e)).
Approval of Abutting Property Owners
By law, a town cannot designate a road or portion of it as a scenic road unless the owners of a majority of the lot frontage abutting the proposed scenic road agree to the designation in writing. Their agreement must be filed with the town clerk. The designating authority also may rescind the designation with the concurrence of the owners of a majority of lot frontage abutting the highway (CGS § 7-149a(c)).
Any person aggrieved by a scenic road designation made by a planning commission or planning and zoning commissioner may appeal to Superior Court (CGS § 7-149a(d)). For the purposes of appealing a zoning or planning and zoning commission decision, an aggrieved person is any person owning land that abuts or is within a radius of 100 feet of any portion of the land involved in the commission’s decision (CGS § 8-8(a)(1)).
More information about scenic roads, including a list of scenic roads in Connecticut, is available on the DOT web site, Connecticut Scenic Roads.